They say you can never go home again. There are times, when you just don’t want to.
But I had to this weekend.
I went back to my hometown to say goodbye to a childhood friend whose life ended on the 49th anniversary of when mine started.
I left that sleepy, little South Texas berg in May of 1977. I’ve been back a few times since, but only a handful of times in the past 15 years.
My sister Karol, my mother and I arrived early and had a few minutes to ride around town before the funeral was set to begin. Ironically, a few minutes is all it takes to tour the city. It’s amazing what you can see if you’re looking; it’s amazing what you can feel when you trying not to feel a thing.
Everything was familiar, yet it wasn’t. The city itself seemed old and decrepit. Buildings were boarded up and collapsing in disrepair. I drove by places where I played, road my bike, swam. I passed by locations where seminal events happened…my first kiss; where I learned to drive; the high school auditorium I walked across to get my diploma. It was devoid of color, like the first 90 minutes of the movie, “Pleasantville”. It was as if enlightenment stimulates vibrancy. But that wasn’t the case here. Everything I saw was dull and lifeless.
And extremely limited…or that’s how it seemed to me. Everything had changed; it was all so different. But, I was also looking at everything through a different pair of eyes.
Then I saw people I knew. Or people I once knew.
I didn’t know these versions of my “life shapers”–people who were so instrumental in helping me create the person I’ve become. They were people I knew as a kid: adults, teachers, parents of friends I’d grown up with. Their faces were in so many photographs of my memory–but not these faces. I didn’t recognize them. Who were they? What happened? They had the audacity to get old. And they had the temerity to hammer that point home by their blatant use of hearing aids, wheelchairs, canes, walkers…senility.
My heart broke in the time it took for me to explain to one of my former teachers who I was for the third time in one conversation. And this was one of who quite fond of me.
What hath time wrought?
Then, I wondered how these people saw me. Most hadn’t laid eyes on me in decades. How DID they see me? Did I seem older, younger, chubbier, thinner, withered, taut, wiser, sillier? Or worse–God forfend– did they see me as completely unchanged? Was I still that little girl, clamoring for attention?
There were those that were lucid and remembered me. We smiled at each other, then hugged–allowing vague familiarity to embrace more than anything else, and then our eyes met. In a fraction of a second, we tried desperately to remember things such as the last time we saw each other, grasping for recall of stories to convey–anything to quell the awkward silence brought on by fading memories and a gaping 30-year time span. And then, we must’ve thought as we scanned each others faces, “Dear God! How can nature be so cruel???
We’d both changed. In each other, we saw the sins committed by life and time.
He noticed my puffy eyes with dark circles; I saw his incredibly receding hairline, thinly veiled by an attempted comb over comprised of a few, sporadic strands.
She noticed the lines around my mouth..the puppet lines, as they’re called. I saw the turgidity of her 75-year old stomach. Her jaundiced complexion would indicate liver involvement. Her lack of energy and malaise would indicate it’s latter stages.
At the wake, this “recognition” happened with amazing frequency.
THEM: “Oh Laurie, it’s so good to see you!
ME: “Hi Mr/Mrs (Insert name here) How’s (insert name here). I haven’t seem him/her since high school. Is he/she married?”
THEM: “Yes, he/she and (insert name here) married and are now grandparents if you can believe that. Now, are you still in Houston? On the radio?”
ME: “Yes, I’m still in broadcasting. On the periphery, anyway”
THEM: “The last time I saw you, you were……”
You could finish that sentence with any number of places, adjectives, pronouns….what ever. They would all fit, and I assure you, they were all uttered in the course of one very sad afternoon.
In the end, I said my goodbyes, shared one last hug with old friends who’s lives had been so affected by death….and then we left.
I was happy to do so because leaving ultimately meant I didn’t have to stay.
Did I pity those that had to? Did I feel sorry for them or better than them because they chose small time life as opposed to my choices? Was I so damn happy living in the city? Is where we live, ever more important than how we live? And if we’re happy–in whatever form happiness takes, really, isn’t environment is just a component of that? Is the scenery just a somewhat minor part of it?
If that’s true, then ultimately, does location matter at all?
As I looked around at friends, people and buildings I no longer recognized, I answered my own question: yes, it matters a great deal.
And so does the cruel, cruel process of aging.
I drove off, wiping away a tear. I looked in the rear view mirror and witnessed the day’s final insult. I saw an 80-year old friend of my mother’s struggle to get into her car. Ten minutes earlier, she and I had been conversing and in her old, wrinkled face, I saw my mortality. In her, I saw my past, my present and my future.
At that moment, I wanted to vow that I’d never return, but I knew I’d have to. Fate would ensure I’d have to eventually to come back for more goodbyes.
They say you can never go home again. But there are times, when you have to. And while you can thank God you don’t have to stay, in some ways, you can never really leave, either.